Conflict and the Craft of Collaborating

Collaboration has become a cliché. Organisations across the human services sector are urged to co-operate, co-ordinate and collaborate to create “joined up” and “integrated” responses to “wicked problems”. This is especially so where client populations have multiple and complex needs, such as mental illness, family violence, alcohol and other drug misuse, homelessness and child maltreatment.

Exhortations to work together are a bit like saying to a very troubled family – “why don’t you just try being nice to one another?” Until we understand the obstacles to collaboration and the conditions conducive to collaboration, working together is likely to be more rhetoric than reality.

Obstacles to Collaboration

In my research on inter-agency collaboration in the field of child protection (Scott, 2005), I found five levels at which conflict or collaboration could operate: inter-organisational; intra-organisational; inter-professional; inter-personal and intra-personal. Conflict at one level can exacerbate conflict at another level so these are not mutually exclusive, but it is only by understanding the primary source of the tension that the problem can be addressed effectively.


Tensions which were inter-organisational or structural in origin were common. For example, “gatekeeping” or resisting referrals from another agency, was a common source of tension, and this was a direct function of resource scarcity and demand pressures, as well as different legal thresholds for reporting suspected maltreatment and initiating statutory intervention.


Sometimes destructive dynamics within one organisation can feed the conflict. At the intra-organisational level, making another organisation “the common enemy” may serve the function of strengthening cohesion where there are internal problems.


Inter-professional tensions are possible both within and between organisations. Professions differ in perspectives, power and preferred modes of communication, and failure to recognise these differences can make collaboration more difficult. Within an organisation there is a governance structure which can contain tensions between members from different disciplinary backgrounds, but this is typically lacking when crossing organisational boundaries.


The potential for inter-personal tensions is present in any human encounter, and this is heightened for service providers working under stressful conditions. However, it is easy to experience conflict as interpersonal when it is structural in origin. The test for this is simple. Ask both individuals if they were to swap positions tomorrow, would they still be in conflict but from the opposite side of the fence? If the answer is yes then the problem is essentially structural not interpersonal.


Where risk and anxiety are potent and pervasive, tensions can have their source at the intra-personal or intra-psychic level. Defence mechanisms of projection and displacement come into play, and scapegoating the other agency is common. In the words of one practitioner interviewed in a study examining the interaction of child protection workers assessing the risk to the child and mental health clinicians treating the child’s parents:

“Inter-agency or inter-professional conflict is worse in bad cases. What happens is you see the other person as having the solution, you can’t fix it so you imagine they can fix it, so you blame them for not fixing it and then get angry … I could see that all over the place.” (Arney et al 2010).”

A Strengths-based Approach

It is not surprising that inter-agency conflict is a major source of work-related stress in the human services. The lesson from this is that the potential for conflict is part and parcel of complex collaboration. We need to normalise conflict rather than pathologise conflict if we are to effectively manage it, and prevent it from becoming toxic.

While it is important to examine why collaboration can fail, it is equally important to examine the conditions under which it can succeed. Michael White and Gail Winkworth have done just this. Based on Moore’s work on creating public value (1995) and their own extensive experience in the human services, White and Winkworth identify three sets of factors which form the preconditions for effective collaboration: the authorising environment (“what we may do”); shared vision and objectives (“what we should do”); and the actual capacity to collaborate (“what we can do”). Their “rubric” supports collaborating organisations to monitor the health of the collaboration at the outset and as it evolves, pinpointing weaknesses that can be addressed before things becomes unstuck.

Helping service providers and managers reflect upon their positive and negative experiences of working across organisational boundaries, and giving them the conceptual tools to assess and address this, will enable us to meet the needs of both clients and service providers better than we currently do.


Blog by Emeritus Professor Dorothy Scott AM PhD

Associate of Amfractus Consulting and

Honorary Professorial Fellow, University of Melbourne,

Adjunct Professor, University of South Australia

About Dorothy

Emeritus Professor Dorothy Scott is an honorary professorial fellow at the University of Melbourne and the University of South Australia. As well as having held several academic positions, Dorothy has held leadership roles in the philanthropic sector, and served as a social worker developing and providing innovative services in the fields of maternal mental health and child and family welfare. She was made a Member of the Order of Australia in 2017 for her contribution to the community.


Arney, F., Lange, R., & Zufferey, C. (2010) Responding to parents with complex needs who are involved with statutory child protection services. In F.Arney & D.Scott (eds) Workingn with Vulnerable Families, a partnership approach. Cambridge University Press.

Moore, M. (1995) Creating  Public  Value:  Strategic  Management  in  Government.  Cambridge, MA  Harvard  University  Press

Scott, D. (2005) Inter-organisational collaboration: a framework for analysis and action. Australian Social Work, 58(20), 132-141